Emmanuel Macron will seek to placate angry strikers this week while honouring his election pledge to shake up France’s pension system in a delicate balancing act that will define his political future.
Ministers are looking at possible concessions that could defuse the strikes and protests that have paralysed the country since last week.
Transport chaos continued this weekend and unions have called for another day of industrial action on Tuesday, putting further pressure on the government.
After last-minute consultations, the prime minister Édouard Philippe will give full details of the controversial changes to the country’s pension schemes at midday on Wednesday.
As hardline union leaders vowed to continue striking indefinitely, there were warnings that the country was entering a dangerous period.
Caroline Janvier, who entered parliament as one of Macron’s La République en Marche “citizen” MPs in the 2017 general election, denied the government was panicked but admitted it was “a moment of apprehension for everyone”.
“Everyone in the country is still traumatised by the gilets jaunes (yellow vest protesters) and concerned the violence will start again,” she said. “Nobody wants a repeat of that.”
Jean Grosset, director of the social dialogue observatory at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, a left-wing think-tank, feared that if the government refused to compromise there would be long-term consequences. “If there’s a hardening of attitudes in France it could create a perilous situation,” he said. “It’s dangerous to have a social crisis because it results in people turning to more populist parties.”
In the town of Joigny – 93 miles (150km) south-east of Paris in Yonne, the heart of the outer commuter belt around the French capital known as la France péripherique – the local railway station, like many in rural France, was deserted last Thursday. Notices announced that no trains would be stopping there.
In nearby villages, school buses continued their rounds, carrying only a handful of pupils to classes not cancelled by striking teachers, as thick fog descended over icy fields.
While schools and colleges are expected to be open again this week, nobody can predict when normal public transport services will be resumed. Rail workers have declared their strikes “renewable” on an open-ended daily basis.
Last Friday Philippe pointed out that the government had been consulting union and business leaders over pensions changes for almost two years in an attempt to clear the way for an agreement. Instead, like the freezing fog in the Yonne, the talks had left people cold and apprehensive.
Recent opinion polls clouded the issue further, suggesting 76% of French people support the pensions overhaul but 64% say have no confidence in Macron to deliver it, while more than 50% believe the strikes are justified.
On Friday, an Elysée spokesman told journalists the president was anxious to “dispel the fog” surrounding the pension issue, an aim not helped by contradictory statements from ministers.
Macron made shaking up France’s arcane pension system a pillar of his 2017 presidential campaign. Now half-way through his five-year mandate, he has already faced down protests against his labour reforms and the overhaul of the state railway SNCF last year, and more than 12 months of gilets jaunes protests; but pension reform is the hill on which his administration has chosen to go down in history – in ignomy or glory.
Macron wants to replace France’s 42 pension schemes with a single “universal” points system that he argues will be fairer. At the heart of the dispute are the “special regimes” that afford certain public sector workers – including railway and other public transport staff – a number of acquis (rights) including early retirement and other benefits.
Philippe said the new system would mean more equality between workers and would exchange “the solidarity with certain professions with a national solidarity”. “It will enable each French person to pay in the same way and benefit from the same rights,” he said.
“France cannot accept in future these schemes that allow some to leave (work) earlier and with more than others.”
Janvier admitted the government’s messages over pension reform had been confused and often contradictory, but said there was a determination to get the job done. “There’s a willingness to carry out this reform, but we know it will be complicated. We said we would reform and reform we will, but there has to be agreement.”
She added: “The approach has to be collective and not conflictual and it needs time and reasonable solutions. It’s not something that can be delivered by forceps. But it has to be done.”
Grosset agreed that the current pension system was unjust, but added: “The government wants the same system for everyone, and why not? But there are people who stand to lose – not just transport workers, but teachers and nurses too. Their concerns must be addressed. Mr Macron promised to reform pensions in his election manifesto, but he also promised there would be no losers.”
He added the situation was unlike 1995, when plans to change France’s welfare and pensions systems brought two million people onto the streets in almost a month of protests against President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Alain Juppé. The reform was dropped.
“In 1995, there wasn’t Marine Le Pen waiting in the wings,” Grosset said. “The ball is in the government’s court. It may succeed in forcing the reforms though but if there is no dialogue, no attempt to compromise, just force, it will leave traces of rancour in the country, which it will pay for one day or another and most likely through the ballot box.”
France’s biggest union, the CFDT, is broadly open to the idea of a points-based system if it applies only to those joining the workforce after 2025. Some government officials have hinted this could be pushed back even further to 2035. The more hardline CGT and Force Ouvrière unions, which are stronger in the public sector, reject the reform wholesale and are preparing for a long fight.
Daniel Ferté of the FO railway workers’ section said union members had the impression the government had “heard nothing” from last week’s protests.
The hard left leader of La France Insoumise, Jean Melenchon, was also in a fighting mood: “People aren’t demanding to be billionaires, they want to retire from work and be able to live with good health and dignity. It’s really not that difficult.”
On Friday Joigny station was still deserted and the normally packed commuter car park dotted with few vehicles. Jean, a retired wholesale executive, was on his way to buy bread. He had no idea how the pension issue would play out. “You want me to predict what will happen next week in France? Can you predict what will happen with Brexit?” he said. “No, me neither.”
A Sisyphean task
Attempting to reform France’s pension system has been likened to the job of poor Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king tasked with rolling an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down again when it neared the top.
For the Socialists, President François Mitterrand lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60 when he took office in 1981.
In 1995, President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister Alain Juppé tried to introduce a universal system and end the “special regimes” enjoyed by public sector workers. The attempt saw 2 million people take to the streets in almost a month protests. The reform was dropped.
In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to 62, but only after a week of strikes, the blockading of oil refineries and nationwide protests.
Emmanuel Macron’s predecessor, the Socialist François Hollande promised to tackle the deficit in the pensions system, but ended up shying away from major changes after tens of thousands protested in Paris.
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